One of the ways the radical right has propelled itself to power over the past few decades is the strategic use of media technologies — particularly talk radio — to build, consolidate, and mobilize its base. Forge editor Brian Kettenring sat down with the historian Brian Rosenwald to discuss his new book, Talk Radio’s America, the Right’s success at monopolizing talk radio, and the possibilities for the Left to use new media technologies to expand our reach.  

Your book mostly equates Democrats with the Left. Many of us on the Left would say: “We have a relationship with Democrats, we work with them, but we hold them accountable and are, on balance, to the left of the center of gravity of the party.” Given that, if you were to design the ideal left media strategy, knowing that the economics have to work and that it has to be entertaining, how do you think about that problem?

Well, first, I'd say I actually think that's a strength. I think part of what benefits talk radio and cable news is they're not an appendage of the Republican Party as much as people on the Left [are appendages of the Democratic Party]. Their goals are commercial, their goals are not political or what's good for Republicans today. And so that gives them the freedom to voice what the audience is thinking as opposed to being, you know, "God, we don't want to criticize the party today, even though our audience is really angry." And I think that I would say three things: You want to be a voice for people who feel voiceless, you want to be informative and engaging and entertaining, and you want to give them a product that they want to listen to. And I think that the digital sphere is going to enable the Left because the barrier to entry is much lower; a good quality microphone and program like Zoom and you can record a podcast pretty decently. And I think that's why you have every flavor of the Left from Chapo Trap House on the very far left to Pod Save America, that is, I would say, trying to push the center of gravity in the Democratic Party to the left while being very popular. You know, I think there is a market for those kinds of products, and I think that the barrier to entry is lower. 

There were a lot of people who said to me, left, right and center, liberalism doesn't fit what makes for good radio, that conservatism is much more black and white, conservatives can synthesize what they're for in ten seconds. Liberals, it takes a lot more to explain that, and liberals are interested in gray area. And I was somewhat skeptical. But there's a new book called Irony and Outrage by a really good political scientist who's a friend of mine, Danaggal Young, and her book delves into those psychological differences, explaining why late-night comedy has been so far left and talk radio has been so far right. And, to some extent, I think that there's sort of a first-mover kind of thing, which is to say that whoever gets there first colonizes a medium, and then when the other side tries to respond to it, they don't hear the product as designed. In other words, Rush, to me, is doing a great show, and it comes off as harsher and more political to liberals than it does to his audience.  

One thing that I'm interested in is the question of the class and race composition of who progressive media speak to. A lot of the Rachel Maddows and probably the Amy Goodmans and whoever, speak to higher-income, predominately white constituencies — and that's not representative of the full coalition.

Well,  I mean, this is part of the problem. But you have very strong Latino and African-American talk formats that are pulling that audience. You have the Rachel Maddow/NPR demographic, the suburban professional. And you have things like “guy talk,” some of which is factual, some of which is just fun talk about entertainment and what's in the news and music, stuff that's usually on FM rock stations. It's very hard to find one uniform product that's going to pull all those people in. 

I agree with that, and I'm not sure there should be. It's just that we need to think about all the constituencies of the progressive movement. The Rachel Maddow demographic gets served well, but I think we should aspire to serve everyone in the movement fully, comprehensively, and aggressively. 

I think that's true by some commercial standards, but I would say that I think there is a lot of media targeted to minority audiences, I think it just flies below the radar in a lot of ways. But I think if you look at the numbers for those things, they are really popular and democratic communicators. The one thing I learned from this is that for most people in the media, if they think there's money to be made, they think there's an audience to be served, they're going to try it because they're desperate for anything that makes money. But there are products targeting every element of the Democratic coalition in some way, and the question is, how do you fuse them together into a liberal product or a liberal network that can interest all of them in some way? And I don't know that anyone has cracked the code and I don't know that you need to in the world of podcasting.

I'm curious about the relationship between ideological media and the ideology of the audience. Did you find that right-wing radio changed people's underlying values and ideology or did it just provide an outlet for what people already believed? 

The way I would express it is, I think there is a mistaken impression on the Left that a lot of these conservative hosts are puppet masters, that they tell their audience what to think and that they're, you know, dragging them around like marionettes off of strings, and I think that it's more that they're taking a collective worldview, they're taking values that they share with the audience, and they're applying it to stuff in the news that their audience might not otherwise know about. The real problem is that there's this imbalance that arises, especially on smaller issues where, without a countervailing force in the media, the calls that are flooding into Congress on an issue may be all people who have a very distinctly conservative understanding of something.

Yes. So you're essentially arguing it's mostly mobilization of existing world views and political education in the sense of helping people apply their world-view to contemporary issues, but not ideological creation, if you will.

Yeah, I mean, you get people who will call in and say, "Hey, Rush, you know, I was a liberal and then I started listening to you and you make much more sense." But I think it's much more about valorizing people's views. I think this notion that they're telling people what to think... at the end of the day, most of the people who are tuning into those kinds of shows at this point are doing it because they want that kind of product. It may move people at the margins, or move them more towards political warfare, hardening some of their views and what they demand. But I don't think it's reshaping their views.

Where do you think media is going, radio or otherwise, over the next five-to-ten years? What are the opportunities for the progressive movement to essentially leapfrog the other side and beat them to where the opportunities are? That's easier said than done, of course, but I'm curious if you have thoughts on that.

Well, I think there has been a cycle of innovation, right? You know, in the early ’90s, the Right colonized talk radio and the Left tried to fight back on talk radio and create their own products, and eventually they [progressives] started moving towards the digital sphere. You know, people like Howard Dean and then the Obama campaign in ’08 got out ahead of the Right on the digital...

With bloggers...

Yeah, bloggers, DailyKos and Huffington Post…. In a lot of ways, the Right has now reached parity, if not surpassed, the Left in some of the digital products. And so, for the Left, it's how do we see what's coming digitally and go in that direction, whether it's networks, podcasts, or video podcasts? I'd be lying if I told you I knew what that was. Maybe it's TikTok, maybe it's some of what AOC has done, maybe it's a blend of nonpolitical and political. I do think AM radio is going to face a crisis going forward because its demographics are pretty old. 

My own personal take on things is that digital is the next frontier. I think that podcasting networks are much more open to liberal content or moderate content or eclectic content, where someone might be right on one issue and far left on another. The people who are least well-served by the media are those with eclectic views, but the podcast networks are open to that because there is no limit, there is not one fifty-thousand watt station in a market like there is with radio. I think that's one frontier, I think that the Left needs to put their ear to the ground and ask folks what it is that you want from your media. 

And I think they need to try to cultivate talent. The left would be wise to try to build platforms that help people to build their own podcasts because one thing that I think is incredibly empowering is, you know, you could get a thousand liberal shows and maybe only five of them hit. But if those five hit, you can build things by the basis of people just trying stuff. But the question with everything digital is, how are you going to monetize this? One thing that the right-wing moneymen have done much, much better than the left-wing moneymen is to invest in infrastructure and understand the importance of infrastructure and understand that the payoff may not come today. It might come five years from now when the next great spoken-word talent is discovered or gets off the ground because there's startup money there, and then it goes viral and this person starts making money and becomes the Left's next big voice.  

Any things that we didn't touch on?

The one thing I'd say is to engage with people you don't agree with and try to consume media that you don't agree with because we're getting trapped in echo chambers and we're missing, first of all, that there's more common ground [than we think]. And we're also letting a lot of people marinate in a conservative echo chamber who might be open to counter facts and might be open to different understandings, but they're getting bogged down because they don't speak to anyone on the other side.  

Thank you so much. Really great to talk to you.  

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